The Ones Who Drive Away from Aoblab
by Andrew Tonkovich
after Ursula K. Le Guin
How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Aoblab? They lived on an artificial island in an imaginary land
built by all of us to the precise specifications of wonder, and constructed from the collective, shared contributions of a
people united, sharing the vision of a land of peace and plenty, a domain of assurance and possibility. Every day here was spent in synchronized individual if invisibly coordinated ceremonies celebrating abundance, wealth, and blissful remove. Aoblab sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time, with an annual Festival and its own language and customs. Indeed, it is a constant and never-ending triumph felt not against some enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all, and the splendor of the world’s year-round summer.
Yes, even as my companion and I drove crossed the auto bridge over the sparkling ocean channel on the highway into this magical world, we wondered at our own good luck, good fortune, even perhaps our goodness. How fortunate we felt! We had moments earlier been only plain or ordinary or average, and yet now immediately felt at ease as we easily envisioned our own lives at least temporarily improved, unencumbered, our own struggles forgotten, vanished in this paradise of sun, sand, water, and their comforts, all acknowledgements of the imperative of being here.
The island citizens of Aoblab were not simple folk, however happy and justifiably proud. They announced their casual revelry in flags and banners, with signs hung from above circumscribing their properties and their well-earned prerogative to happy abundance. We admired their beautiful homes and cars and gardens and children. We smiled in gentle astonishment, wondering at the sights of their shops and restaurants, cafes and parks, and took in the beautiful, long
stretch of sand which demarcated this wonderland of leisure separated from the rest of civilization, with the white sails of
boats and pleasure craft on the sea in the distance.
We had travelled here to remember the life of a friend, to join in a memorial for a man who had, as ourselves, lived on the
outskirts of this republic of desires fulfilled, resided in sight of this man-made island of ease and assumption, the collectively subsidized retreat of those who had succeeded, achieved, prospered, been enriched, and to whose vision of the world so many aspired, and where they themselves longed to find their own place but had not.
His life had not been lived here but would at least be remembered here, finally, surrounded by wealth which he could not have in life achieved. We arrived at the entrance to the fabled and grand Aoblab Pavilion, chosen for his final farewell by family and friends, all of them also visitors to this magical destination. We left our car and keys with the valet staff, two youthful citizens who like us were only guests of this community, employed to serve, dutifully, if joyfully. Like us, they would return home that evening to different worlds, of responsibility and struggle, if for now rewarded with the company of the special residents, and would surely be well-remunerated for their care of the people and cars and buildings of Aoblab.
We were soon greeted inside the famous gathering, fed generously, and provided drink and good company. We joined in the celebration of a life while taking in a view of the vast harbor, the island, the magnificent homes, the yachts and the other visitors who, like us, were only guests here, who’d return to their own homes later, but who were for now content, it
seemed, to merely know that it was all here, that it had to be here, and that because we saw that, the existence of Aoblab
somehow depended on us. too.
We believed. We understood. After all, we’d accepted the invitation, been satisfied and more. Our friend had himself
dreamed of this place, likely found joy and relief here on his occasional visits. The ceremony of life touched us. We laughed, we cried. We felt so lucky to be in the celebrated hall. Taking care to get our valet parking ticket stamped, we at last said goodbye to our friend’s widow and her fatherless but well-comforted children. We were each given a tiny candle with his name and photo affixed. The ceremony had been a balm, a welcome consolation to those assembled, friends who felt the loss of a good friend. It had been a helpful reconciling of the distance, so much distance, between reality and dream, life, and death. The candles were tokens, both of our visit to the city of happiness and of our faith in the possibility of happiness’s triumph, finally, over loss and grief, all of it possible via our trek to the Pavilion.
The two young men attending vehicles at the valet parking lot accepted our stamped ticket, and we paid our modest fee, with a tip. They delivered our car, our keys, and wished us well. Alas, we noticed that a shiny new luxury vehicle, popular on this island, blocked our exit, preventing our departure. Luckily, we were in no rush. We were in Aoblab, after all. We admired the beautiful automobile in the sunshine. There, after all, in the driveway was the dream transport invention of a visionary, the genius of science and entrepreneurship, the car of the future today, the vehicle in which rode gods, masters, leaders and those to whom life had bequeathed so much, an electric miracle of transport, gleaming black with silver metallic emblem and tinted windows, the breathtaking exclamation of prosperity and elegance. It was normally inaccessible to us, but now, today, it was so close we could touch it. Why, it was practically designed for exactly this miraculous locale! “They gave us the wrong key card,” explained one of the young valets. “I apologize,” said the other. “They must own two of these,” he speculated, and ran off to find the owners, who themselves had likely gone off to visit the legendary Pavilion.
We admired the grand carriage, wanting to but daring not in fact to touch it. We waited in the lot on the pier adjacent the
Pavilion, watching others admire the car as well, observing other visitors to the island board a cruising vessel docked nearby, posing in front of the famous edifice, whispering to themselves and encouraging one another as is the behavior of
all fortunate guests of this happy redoubt. They stopped only to admire the car, to see their reflection in its sleek contours,
then returned to strolling the island’s narrow walkways in a quiet celebration of the place, leading children by the hand,
pointing to the sails, the birds, the shops.
We waited for forty-five minutes, uncomplaining, as we were only mildly inconvenienced by this delay, and so in awe were
we at our good luck on this day, and at the experience of our close proximity to so much of the wealth, the joy, the goodness that is only just the daily ritual, no, the everyday festival of Aoblab, where nothing is sacrificed or lost or misplaced, and all is understood, accepted, all so that this collective wealth and wonder can be anticipated, sunrise to sunset, every day, every week, for years and generations and, lo, into a future only of more and even better. Perhaps, we speculated, one day we might return, welcomed back, even invited to join, briefly, this community once again.
The owners of the magnificent dream machine at last returned. And what a sight they were! A couple --- a man and a woman---attractive, fit, tanned, elegant in pressed leisure clothes, the tight fitness wear of athleticism matched with the glamourous blouses of life unburdened by boundaries, limits, or fear. Each wore reflective sunglasses and expensive running shoes, as if they were the much-cherished grown children of benevolent and wise rulers of some distant kingdom, exiles from another paradise who now lived easily in this one, ambassadors of a dream, emissaries of a similarly glowing sister-world.
But wait, what was this? Each carried in their arms a creature which from our respectful distance we could not easily, reliably identify or discern. At first we imagined they were carefully groomed matching purebred cats or tiny pedigreed dogs but these pets were, upon further inspection more exotic and rare, maybe identical monkeys, ring-tailed lemurs or perhaps baby three-toed sloths, animals which, as this couple, might seem to some to be visitors far from their exotic homelands. Or were the creatures some newly imagined breed, some new iteration of a species previously unknown to our world? We caught only the briefest glimpse of them, their tiny nearly-human faces on animal bodies with dark fur and long, sleek tails, collars at their necks and, then, suddenly, they were gone. From our polite remove in the lot we watched the man, cradling his strange creature, reach in his pocket for the correct key, accepting the other from the valet. The doors of the vessel opened instantly, automatically. The woman, holding her animal, entered the passenger side, the beast close to her chest. The man lowered himself into the driver’s seat. But then, just as both of the elegant doors of the vehicle were closing, we heard --- or only imagined we heard --- the sharp if muted cry of what sounded like an imperiled or wounded being, the brief, hysterical scream of despair or suffering, a calling out for help. And so they were gone.
Elegant and important and blessed people that they were, the couple must surely have in their haste only forgotten to
acknowledge the extra time and labor of the valet in tracking them down at the Pavilion. Somehow they failed to offer a tip
or ordinary gesture of apology for the inconvenience. An easy mistake, this must surely have been an oversight. Besides, all witnessing the scene, including my companion and I, were only too grateful for the opportunity to have seen the two, and their matching creature companions, their magnificent automobile, and to watch them back out of the parking lot, and depart into the street, and to join the others who lived and visited and dreamed and, like so many, believed in the magical land of Aoblab.
And because they had no doubt grown up here or in a place somewhere like Aoblab, been cared for by devoted others, treated with generosity, gifted with property and power in their own land, they no doubt found it easy to navigate to their next destination, assured in the satisfactions of their expectations, their inheritance, their world.
And us? How very lucky we felt to have been affirmed and comforted ourselves on that most special day of days. We
shared our joy with the valets, laughing and congratulating each other. Our hearts were content, our glimpse of life on
Aoblab as well-rewarded as if we actually lived there ourselves somehow! We retraced our route home, through the streets
and boulevards of the island, past the beach and the pier and the tiny shops and magnificent domiciles, back over the
causeway bridge. Below us passengers aboard a crowded watercraft continued their harbor cruise. Anglers waved from
the docks, couples embraced, children played, and bicyclists made their tour of the pathways, past palm trees and flowers
and along the boardwalk.
We drove away from Aoblab, but we hoped, someday, to indeed return. Meanwhile, we have so much to remember and to be grateful for, to cherish if also to puzzle over. What voice or echo or plea had we heard briefly or only imagined in that
fleeting moment, as the handsome couple retreated to their splendid car, a faint something lost among the sounds and
sights of our encounter, the briefest expression of distress or discomfort? Only, most likely, the necessary birthing song of
more and better possibilities of our own bright and rich and satisfying futures, and of yours as well.
Andrew Tonkovich is the founding editor of Citric Acid and longtime editor of the Santa Monica Review. His fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, Zyzzyva, Faultline, Juked, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He wrote for both OC Weekly and the Orange County Register. With Lisa Alvarez, he co-edited the landmark Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, and is the author of two fiction collections, The Dairy of Anne Frank and More Wish Fulfillment in the Noughties and Keeping Tahoe Blue and Other Provocations. His review of A People's Guide to Orange County appeared recently in Alta online.